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Farewell Heather — we will all miss you

The recent story about Tremor joining Judy and family in the UK missed out another very lucky dog — Matilda. Now, as her “mum”, Heather, is sadly leaving us to return to the UK, it seems fitting to mention them both and to say a fond farewell to our Veterinary Director Heather, who for the past three and a half years, has cared for our bears with love and compassion.




Senior Bear Manager Nic is putting together a goodbye book of everyone’s favourite Heather stories — and without wanting to embarrass her, I thought it would be appropriate to post mine here. 

During the terrible earthquake in Sichuan in May 2008, after receiving orders from the embassies to evacuate our Western staff, it was a desolate, horrible feeling to see those who didn’t want to leave, protesting vehemently before finally and very reluctantly boarding the bus for Chongqing. 

Heather refused. Point blank and without emotion, she simply said that she was ignoring my instructions and refusing to budge. Having no recourse, I fired her — and still she refused to leave. Smiling at a stubborn, determined and very kindhearted woman, I hastily reinstated her, with an enormous sense of relief that she would be staying on site. I won’t describe the next few days, as I sense, like me, Heather will have distinctly personal thoughts that are not for sharing, but I do want to say that, like all of our staff during that awful time, she rose to probably one of the most challenging times of her life with stoicism and humour, and earned the respect of all. 

I remember so many things about Heather — her extraordinary ability to execute emergency help and resuscitation on the rare occasion when a bear reacted badly to anaesthetic, her exhaustive attempts to breathe life back into our beautiful dog Heibao after he was deliberately poisoned by a meat trader, and her devastation when he lost the battle and died. I remember Heather’s fabulous presentations in conference, her never-ending “can-do” attitude when we considered another rescue of farmed bears, and her very dotty dog, Matilda, who had no sense of self or space, and barged her way ecstatically into the sanctuary and people’s hearts, without any sense of politeness at all. (Matilda’s home quarantine with me in Hong Kong was similarly met with a combination of surprise and disdain by my resident cats and dogs, who looked on in disbelief as she bounced happily on sofas, beds, tables, animals and people whenever it took her fancy.) 

I remember resorting to warning Heather whenever she went away to “Be careful!” —because predictably some calamity would occur on whatever trip she took — which predictably and thankfully she and her companions would always survive. 

Her love for the bears shone — and her late nights with the rest of the team in China and Vietnam will always be remembered with more thanks than she will ever know, as emergency surgeries or devastating post mortems were performed. Her closing lines “Sleep well little bear” at the end of her written goodbyes to the bears that had died signalled a vet so professional, but so utterly connected and engaged with a species she moved mountains to help. 

Heather, thank you for all you gave to the bears, dogs, cats, macaques, leopard cat, and other animals of China. We have all benefited hugely from your professionalism and care, sharing the highs and lows of welfare and cruelty that make up this fascinating, and sometimes frustrating country. I know we’ll see you again but, for now, you have the bears well and truly under your skin, and the admiration and love of a team who will miss you tremendously in China and Vietnam. Much love Jillx 

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